Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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October 29th, 2009

Update on the Home Front

Uncategorized

As we head up to Halloween weekend, here’s an update on the home front. Our older son, who has become interested in men’s fashion, is going as a magician, so that, for the first time, he can wear a top hat and tails. And our younger son, who has developed a deep interest in baseball this summer, is going as a New York Yankee, wearing number Derek Jeter’s number 2.

We’ll pick up some pumpkins after school Friday, carve them Saturday afternoon (following fencing class and a birthday party earlier in the day), and go trick-or-treating in the neighbourhood on Saturday evening (knowing from experience which streets are best), then watch some of the World Series game, and finally collapse into unconsciousness. A busy, and hopefully memorable, day will be had by all.

As the weather cools off, we are developing new ways to have physical activity indoors and my younger son and I have come up with a version of indoor baseball, with certain characteristics of squash. In a basement room 18 feet by 11 feet we set up a diamond going lengthwise. We use a foam rubber ball, which the hitter whacks and usually ricochets off one or more walls. The batter is out if he gets three strikes, if the pitcher catches the ball on the fly, or if the pitcher tags him out on the basepaths. Only home runs count, i.e. hits aren’t cumulative.

There is an open door on the third base line. My son, who is right handed, has developed great skill at hitting the ball out of the doorway, which is a home run. I’m left handed, so find it impossible to do that. We both have developed facility at the fielding side of the game — quickly seizing the ball as it bounces around the room — and holding the hitter to something less than a homerun, as well as the base running side of the game — taking as many bases as we can without getting tagged.

We don’t have an open door on the first base line, so my son has an advantage over me. I suppose we could equalize things by closing the door, but I’m happy to see him develop his skill at pulling the ball, i.e. hitting it down the third base line into left field. We both play as competitively as we can, so his advantage is a result of the structure of the field, rather than because dad isn’t trying hard.

It’s interesting that the game has evolved as we’ve played it, and we’ve worked up a set of rules that both of us understand and try to exploit. We’ll see how it evolves during the winter.

I’ll be back to narrative next week.

October 15th, 2009

Charlie Wilson

Narrative

After seeing the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, I took the time this week to read George Crile’s 535 page history by the same title – the book from which the movie was adapted. The book was eminently readable and entirely enjoyable, though the story that emerged was very complex, incorporating quite a few subplots. The question that always comes to mind after such an exercise is what value the book added to the narrative in the film or, put otherwise, what was lost in the film’s necessarily simpler version of the narrative.

Let’s put aside the subplots and concentrate on the main plot of the movie, namely the co-operation between Charlie Wilson, a rogue congressman, and Gust Avrakotos, a rogue member of the US Clandestine Service (the elite of the CIA). Together, they orchestrated massive covert American support for the Afghan mujahedeen who ultimately defeated the Soviets.

The book did two things more effectively than the movie. First, it provided more comprehensive back-stories about both Wilson and Avrakotos. Both men had intrinsically fascinating back-stories. Second, working from Wilson’s point of view regarding Congress and Abrakotos’s regarding the CIA, it painted detailed portraits of the organizational culture and incentive systems in both institutions.

In Wilson’s case, we learn about his relationship with the Democratic leadership, in particular then Speaker Tim O’Neill, and how he was able to accumulate and trade personal capital to achieve his policy objectives. In Avrakotos’s case, we learn how he came up through the ranks in the CIA and, despite his profound difference in background with the WASP private school culture, he was able to achieve great things. In both cases, the book tells us more than the movie about their personal backgrounds, Wilson as a military man who combined virtually unshakeable sex and alcohol addictions with Churchillian idealism, and Avrakotos as a Greek-American with an ambition for public service.

The big difference between books and movies is that books tell and movies show. The movie didn’t have the capacity to go deeply into Wilson’s and Avrakotos’s back-stories. It is the responsibility of the actor to read and contemplate the back-story, immerse himself in the characters (as is done in method acting), and then through all the different aspects of his presentation (voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc.) make us understand, in a profound way, the individual he is portraying. And, after having now read the book, I stick to what I said in my previous post. Philip Seymour Hoffman got Gust Avrakotos spot-on and Tom Hanks missed in his portrayal of Charlie Wilson.

I come away from the book knowing more about Afghan and Pakistani politics, Congressional decision-making, and the CIA’s organizational culture, three disparate but intrinsically interesting bodies of knowledge. And I also come away with a better appreciation of where the movie succeeded and where it failed.

October 8th, 2009

Should we Fight in Charlie Wilson

Narrative

Always searching for new material for my narratives courses, I just viewed the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War. The film was directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile. While the movie got great reviews from top critics including Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli, I’m not convinced that I want to use it.

The story, in brief, involves Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, who revels in the opportunities for personal vice (sex, booze, and cocaine) provided by his political celebrity. Indeed the movie begins with him in a Las Vegas hot-tub, snorting with two strippers. Good-time Charlie, as he was called, also recruited an entirely female office staff, with attractiveness and immodesty essential criteria. With a supportive district, Charlie was at liberty to follow his ideological interests, one of which became the cause of the Afghan mujahedeen who were struggling against the Soviet Union in the Eighties. Charlie was able to work the system – in particular the lack of public oversight for CIA spending – to dramatically increase US military aid to the mujahedeen, in particular to enable them to buy Russian anti-aircraft weapons, funneled through Israel and Pakistan. This increase in their military capability enabled them to drive the Soviets out, and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Wilson had the help of Joanne Herring, a right wing Houston socialite with political connections, and Gust Avrakotos, a rouge CIA agent.

The movie, produced by Jeffrey Skoll’s Participant Productions, has its trademark “feel good” narrative arc, with the reason for feeling good that the evil Russkies, who bombed defenseless villagers and deliberately killed Afghan children, were ultimately defeated. But the movie ends with the bitter irony that, despite all the money Charlie was able to find to support mujahedeen resistance, he couldn’t convince his colleagues to provide any funding for reconstruction after the war. The additional back-story, not touched upon in the movie, is that the mujahedeen ultimately evolved into the Taliban.

Charlie Wilson was an unusual politician. He was a mixture of libertine and zealot, able to shift effortless from personal decadence to political machinations, and to succeed at both. In that, he resembles Jack Kennedy. (Bill Clinton too had that skill but in a time less likely to cut politicians slack for their peccadilloes he got caught). In a previous generation, the obvious actor to portray Wilson would have been Sean Connery who, as James Bond, could shift effortless between decadence and espionage. Tom Hanks was, in part, miscast: he certainly fits the political zealot side of Charlie Wilson, but the decadent side is against his type.

The movie should have downplayed the Participant Productions standard “stand up and cheer for the good guy” narrative (for example, Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck and Josie Ames in North Country) and dwelt more on the unintended consequences of Wilson’s success at providing covert American support for the mujahedeen.

The reviewers appreciated the movie’s fast pace and humor, and particularly liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as the rogue CIA agent. I didn’t care for a narrative that inadequately addressed the situation that evolved after Charlie Wilson’s original action and that didn’t give appropriate attention to the paradoxes and unintended consequences of his political zealotry.

October 1st, 2009

Mensch and Menschkeit

Narrative

The key concept in the 1996 movie City Hall is menschkeit. In Yiddish a mensch is someone of noble character and dignity, someone who does what is right and what is responsible. Menschkeit (or menschlichkeit) is the set of properties that make one a mensch. Mensch and menschkeit are terms that, in New York at least, have been assimilated into English. Mayor John Pappas, whose background is Greek rather than Jewish, refers to menschkeit as “about honor and character” and “the space between a handshake.”

Intrinsic to Pappas’s role as a politician is deal-making: literally hundreds of deals, closed by hundreds of handshakes. How does a politician maintain nobility of character and a sense of what is ethical in all the many deals? The movie refers to three types of deals: public-private partnerships, deals involving public policy, and deals with the devil (in this case, the Mafia).

The public-private partnership (though the movie didn’t use the term) involved Mayor Pappas finding the money in the city’s and the state’s budgets for expressway and subway access to a proposed financial center in Brooklyn. Undertaking the project will make both the developers and the citizens who will get jobs there better off. This partnership is comparable to the infrastructure partnerships the Harper Government in its Economic Action Plan.

Deals about public policy involve politicians voting for a policy or program that constituents or interest groups desire, in exchange for their political support in terms of votes, campaign donations, or both. That’s how politics works, particularly in systems such as the US, where individual politicians are more or less free agents. Campaign finance laws may constrain these deals in terms of who is permitted to give, and how much.

The third type of deal is a compact with the devil. Mayor Pappas did a favor for one of his city councilors who was beholden to the Mafia. Pappas phoned a judge to persuade him to give a Mafioso who had sold narcotics to minors parole rather than the long prison term he ought to have received. What the mayor did was flat-out illegal. The movie didn’t disclose what the other side of the deal was – the benefits the mayor and councilor received (or pain they avoided) in exchange for influencing the judge.

Why, in the first place, would any politician do deals with known Mafiosi? By definition, they are not people of character or people who know what is right or what is responsible. A Mafioso cannot be a mensch or display menschkeit. I have no first-hand knowledge of this, but my assumption, drawn from The Godfather, is that their modus operandi is to pretend to be people of character, and to do favors for politicians that incur obligations that, at some future point, can be called in.

Pappas’s prot

September 23rd, 2009

Engaging the Bright Boys and Bright Girls

Narrative

In his review of Laurent Contet’s award-winning film The Class, Roger Ebert writes “A school year begins with the teacher as top dog. Whether it ends that way is the test of a good teacher. Do you stay on top with strict discipline? With humor? By becoming the students’ friend? Will they sense your strategy?”

One of the challenges any teacher faces comes from the brightest students in class. Teachers must ensure that most students understand the material, which often leaves the brightest bored. They will often express their boredom by challenging the teacher’s intellectual authority. How does the teacher respond?

The movie Stand and Deliver presents an instance where the teacher, math instructor Jaime Escalante, responds successfully. Escalante quickly spots the class leader, Angel (played by Lou Diamond Phillips), demonstrates that math is worth knowing and that he knows more of it, and then cuts a deal with him. Escalante gives Angel an extra text book to keep at home, so that he will never be seen to be so uncool as to carry a text book, in exchange for which Angel will do the work and thus lead by example.

In The Class, the main challenge to teacher Francois Marin’s authority comes from Esmerelda (played by Esmerelda Ouertani). Esmerelda knows her grammar well and is bored by the readings Marin assigns. Marin is unnecessarily provocative, for example when Esmerelda says that she often goes to Galleries Lafayette, he expresses surprise that she ever ventures outside her own neighborhood, the definitely unchic 20th arrondissement.

Esmerelda’s most threatening moment comes when she participates as student rep in a faculty meeting to assess the students’ progress, and then promptly reports all Marin’s critical comments to the students. In response, he criticizes her – in the classroom – for behaving like a skank. This accusation got under her skin. In the last session of class, when Marin asked the students what they had learned during the year, Esmerelda answered that she learned nothing from the books he assigned, but that she had read The Republic. After demonstrating – in response to his questions – that she really had read it, she proudly announced that it wasn’t a skank’s book.

Clearly, the relationship between Marin and Esmerelda was a troubled one, with each pushing the other’s buttons. How should a teacher respond to an Esmerelda?

The standard response would be some sort of enriched curriculum. Some public school systems have magnet schools or enriched programs for their Esmereldas (e.g. Bronx Science in New York or Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto). If they had the means, the parents of an Esmerelda might send her to an academically enriched private school such as University of Toronto Schools. In The Class, these options don’t seem to have been available, so Marin would have had to take it upon himself to do the extra work of designing a personalized curriculum for Esmerelda and monitoring her progress.

The additional material on the DVD tells us that the students participated in an acting workshop. Furthermore, the student who played Esmerelda – Esmerelda Ouertani – used her own name and told us that she really wasn’t acting because the character Esmerelda was exactly the person she is. So we have a paradox here. The real Esmerelda Oeuertani found enrichment in her education by portraying an Esmerelda Ouertani who was bored by the curriculum.

I close on a personal note. Looking back at myself during high school, I see quite a bit of Esmerelda in me. I recall that in Grade 12 I got 73 out of 75 on a history exam and, when the teacher was discussing the exam, I was reading a newspaper. The teacher kicked me out of class for a week. This penalty made it clear that he was offended, but it certainly didn’t engage me. To this day, I remember the penalty, but I don’t at all remember the teacher.